South River Forest: A big green dream starts coming true
A lovely June morning was the perfect time for a nature hike in southeast Atlanta, but the starting point was a bit of a surprise. A small group traversed the tire-doughnut scars in the parking lot of the Value Village shopping center at Moreland and Custer avenues, parked behind its graffiti-covered loading docks, passed through a rust-stained chain-link fence, and gathered atop an embankment formed from the dirt when the site was deforested and bulldozed decades ago.
And there it was: a picturesque, tree-lined creek washing over bedrock and boulders, its waters heading to the South River, the lesser-known sibling of the Chattahoochee in metro Atlanta’s waterways.
“It looks like a mountain stream. It’s just beautiful,” said urban planner Ryan Gravel, one of the group’s tour guides. But looks aren’t everything. Added fellow tour guide Deron Davis, executive director of the Georgia chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), “This is the most polluted stream in the state of Georgia.”
That surprise about underappreciated beauty, that untapped potential, and that environmental injustice were the point of the tour, as TNC is working on perhaps the most ambitious green space concept in metro Atlanta since the Chattahoochee became a national park 40 years ago: the South River Forest.
Coordinating and building upon decades of work by local activists, service organizations and governments, TNC aims to prod the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County to assemble and preserve over 3,500 acres of green space into an interconnected system bigger than 20 Piedmont Parks, even bigger than Stone Mountain Park. Not only would it be the biggest forest inside the Perimeter, but the concept also includes cleaning up the river and spurring a green economy for the communities in and around its leafy domain.
Putting the South River Forest pieces together on a map takes some squinting and plentiful finger-tracing, and doing it in real life will be a lot harder, with its mix of a few existing parks and many publicly and privately owned tracts ranging from forest to shuttered landfills. Touchier still, the city and county governments that would have to collaborate are currently in dispute with each other and local communities about the fate of a couple of parcels key to the concept, especially the former Atlanta Prison Farm site.
In dream-big scale, political heavy lifting and mechanical intricacy, the South River Forest’s only recent comparison as a local planning effort may be the Atlanta BeltLine — which is partly why TNC hired Gravel, the BeltLine’s original visionary, as a consultant. But Gravel has heard the South River call for much longer. In 2017, he and Atlanta City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane included a smaller version of the South River Forest — then dubbed “South River Park” — in their “Atlanta City Design” book, an aspirational vision for the city’s development future. In that vision, the South River green space is one of two gigantic Atlanta “anchor parks,” mirrored in the northwest by an expanded Chattahoochee riverfront.
Now a crucial moment has come thanks to the big guns at the Atlanta Regional Commission. The regional planning agency last month announced it was granting “staff assistance” to the South River Forest concept — a bland-sounding move that actually means a ton of practical and political help. The ARC will aid in defining the project and bringing all the important players to the table, from local groups like the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) to government leaders. That process, taking its first steps this month, may start to attract philanthropic interest as well.
“With ARC comes a significant amount of credibility — and credibility in an area that is one of the most complicated pieces of this vision, which is interjurisdictional partnerships,” says Davis.
“It’s really metro Atlanta’s last chance to have a public forest that big inside 285,” says Gravel. “… I think once people see the bigger vision and that it’s really the last chance for Atlanta to do something this big, it will be really exciting. And that’s why I’m excited the ARC is getting involved, because it will elevate the dialogue to the level and attention it’s needed.”
Vision and challenges
As currently sketched by TNC, the South River Forest is an irregular area in southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb centered on the river, which runs east-west there, and a major tributary called Intrenchment Creek — that stream behind Value Village. The boundaries include I-285 to the south, Bouldercrest Road to the east, Jonesboro Road to the west, and an irregular north/northwestern limit that includes parts of Moreland, Custer and South River Industrial Boulevard.
Existing parks within that area include DeKalb’s Intrenchment Creek and Constitution Lakes, and Atlanta’s Southside Park and the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve — the latter a 200-plus-acre forest bought by the city last year as a South River Forest foothold. The South River Trail, a multiuse trail, already exists in short segments in part of the area and the nonprofit PATH Foundation has access approved for future routes that would connect to the BeltLine. Surrounded by the green space are several communities and such landmarks as South Atlanta High School and the Starlight Drive-In movie theater, which would remain untouched.
As its modest name suggests, the South River is smaller and less glamorous than the Chattahoochee, but plays a similar role in draining Atlanta’s waters, just in a different direction — southeast about 50 miles, where it meets Lake Jackson and becomes part of the headwaters for other rivers that ultimately flow into the Atlantic.
Located in an area of historic racial segregation, many industrial uses, prison sites and limited economic opportunity, the river and its communities also have suffered from pollution. For decades, the area has literally been a toilet and garbage pail for much of the city and county, with landfills aplenty and raw sewage pouring into the waterways by accident or on purpose as emergency overflows. In April, the nonprofit American Rivers named the South River No. 4 on its annual list of the nation’s 10 most endangered rivers.
“We call it the dumping ground. It was a set of communities that I think felt like they were thrown away…,” says Davis.
Community activists and nonprofits have responded. The SRWA formed 20 years ago to combat the sewage and other pollution. HABESHA, a nonprofit with a Pan-African focus, teaches gardening and urban forestry. Davis said that TNC, which has long worked with those and other local groups, intended to form some umbrella organization for the South River Forest plan — but the community beat them to it with the 2018 founding of the South River Forest Coalition.
Many of those activists are now involved in the disputes over two spaces that are important parts of the forest concept. The old prison farm on Key Road cited by Gravel as a centerpiece is now pegged by the City of Atlanta, which already operates a police shooting range nearby, for a full police and firefighter training facility. And last year, DeKalb agreed to give about 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park to the Blackhall Studios movie and TV production facility for an expansion in exchange for other land elsewhere for green space.
SRWA Board President Jacqueline Echols says those deals are just part of the same pattern of governments treating local communities as if they don’t need a “healthy environment” — a pattern that the forest concept would have to break.
“How do we change this mindset? This is the critical question that the proposed engagement and consensus-building process has to grapple with,” Echols said in an email. “It’s not a matter of whether the community is facing yet another undeniable act of disinvestment, but rather, is there the political will to find a workable alternative to what is being proposed? Let the environmental healing process begin. It is long overdue.”
DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry said he believes there are ways for the county to purchase more land for preservation and for terms to be reached on something like an “Atlanta-DeKalb South River Forest Authority” to oversee the big picture. He said he’s collaborating with Urban Leaders Fellowship, a summer program that gives policy-making experience to professionals, to look at national models.
“Nature doesn’t care about a county line,” he says. “It’s an ecosystem.”
Terry says he also wants DeKalb to issue bonds for park acquisition and allow money from tree-removal compensation funds to be used for the same purpose, to have “skin in the game” on the South River Forest.
Larry Johnson, another DeKalb commissioner, is on board as well. “This concept means the world to the residents I represent,” he said. “We have the opportunity to build on the county’s plan to make sure we have a green space that is equal to all and a place where we can practice intergenerational wellness.”
Much of the South River area remains industrial uses like truck yards; one large tract near Lake Charlotte was deforested to become a dirt farm where earthmovers scoop out fill for sale. The low scale of local investment is one reason for the South River area’s challenges, and also why there is still so much remaining forest to save. “But now it’s about to become the front line of growth,” warns Gravel.
The Value Village shopping center is slated for remaking into a massive, mixed-use project with homes overlooking the creek. A new townhome development already stands next to an Aldi discount grocery store across the street. On the opposite corner, a low-rise office building is planned by a company interested in showing off that stream-front, Gravel says.
The South River Forest plan is meant to shape that incoming growth, as well as spur new forms. TNC is well aware that the plan itself can attract developers, even gentrification, adding to the urgency to preserve green space and stay ahead of the game. TNC and its supporters also have faith in the ability of the plan to create a new green economy based on such sectors as recreation and urban forestry.
“This area doesn’t have shopping malls. It doesn’t have an airport. It doesn’t have a kind of downtown area. But what it does have is this forest,” says Gravel.
Terry says the “vast green space uses… to me is an economic development gold mine for [part of] metro Atlanta South that has basically been forgotten.”
Philanthropy will be another financial factor in getting the ball rolling, acquiring land and carrying out programs. The recent TNC tour of the area was for the benefit of a couple of prospective supporters, Brigitte and Ted Kondis of Roswell. At some of the existing green spaces, they saw what a larger forest plan might carry out.
Constitution Lakes, off Moreland, offered a glimpse of the river, a scenic boardwalk through wetlands, and the famous Doll’s Head Trail, an assortment of folk art made from debris in the park that is its own kind of community response to pollution and nature. Davis talked about the park’s migratory birds and the repeated crack of gunfire from the Atlanta Police shooting range traveled across the lakes. Then it was on to the Lake Charlotte preserve on Forrest Park Road, viewed from the edge since it isn’t yet open to the public. A similar view was had of another wooded property across the street — nearly 45 acres owned by an Iowa cardiologist, according to Fulton County property records — that TNC hopes the city might acquire. Added to the forest plan, it would connect Southside Park and Lake Charlotte.
Along the way, there were many exclamations about finding such solitude alongside truck yards and the highway, and how if such green spaces were in North Fulton, they’d already be spruced up. The locals already love the South River Forest, but if the plan is going to move ahead, it will need to stir that sense of surprise, awareness and possibility with many other supporters like the Kondises.
“We honestly didn’t know where we were going,” said Brigitte Kondis as the tour wrapped up. “I think finding this type of landscape so close to Atlanta and the airport is amazing.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the general direction the South River runs through the forest concept area.